The perils of becoming a good story

BY Hemangini| IN Media Practice | 01/11/2006
Press coverage began with interest and enthusiasm but increasingly the Blank Noise Project carries implicitly the baggage of the media that has covered it.

Hemangini Gupta
Coordinator, Blank Noise Project

Some time last month we realised at the Blank Noise Project that the media attention focussed on us had not just grown from sporadic to prolific - more importantly, it had enlarged laterally. Eenadu, Salon, Lun in Chile, Haaretz in Israel to the Telegraph, UK, to give you an idea of the spread. Radio, television, blogs, internet websites. And we`ve come to realise that, for better or worse, a bunch of young girls out on the streets using new and unusual methods to get across a message about that age old Evil Sin of street harassment had become a fairly attractive story to carry.

The project began in 2003 by then art student Jasmeen Patheja with student workshops exploring how we respond to street sexual harassment. It evolved as a public participative project: volunteers would conduct ?interventions? in public spaces. Straight lines of staring, unsmiling girls appearing at a red light for instance, each wearing an alphabet on their breasts that together formed the question ?Y R U LOOKING AT ME?? and squarely meeting the gaze of the men waiting at the signal till the male gaze invariably turned away, thus flipping traditional power structures on their heads. Or role playing to explore different ways in which the street acts as a site for negotiation, taking over areas that men usually dominate. Night Action Plans where women explore streets sometimes wandering around creating graffiti imprints about harassment on pavements and walls. Sound and movement used in Delhi`s subways, cameras used to photograph perpetrators of harassment.

Press coverage began with interest and enthusiasm; reporters would question volunteers, ask passers by what they made of the action. They do so now as well but increasingly, the Blank Noise Project carries implicitly the baggage of the media that has covered it. Whereas earlier people would approach Jasmeen having read her postings on the Sarai readerlist (where she was on a fellowship for this project), now journalists approach us via a media report they have just read or watched. This has had two fallouts.

First, ample media coverage has removed doubts about whether Blank Noise was a viable story to cover. Increasingly we get journalists asking us to ?send some photographs and reply this questionnaire?. Or a sudden call, ?What difference do you think this Project has made to street harassment??. Apart from the fact that most sudden phone calls ask about absurdly wide-ranging issues, this might actually be alright if the journalist was calling from, say, Antigua. But these calls are from cities in which the project runs, often just days away from an intervention that they could watch firsthand.

Reading frequently about a project probably grants familiarity and the sense that all that`s left to do is gather some ?quotes? and pictures, preferably while not moving from your desk. So our past media coverage, by default, seems to have ruled out the possibilities that a journalist will show up at an event with some critical questions to ask about the form or nature of these interventions. It`s granted the project some sanction. Some legitimacy. Which is somehow a terrible thing for a project that`s still evolving. Often what we envision is problematic for some volunteers; crucial questions arise - are the men whose stares we are challenging actually responding out of curiosity (and not sexual intent) because what we are wearing is unusual to see on the street, the same way wearing, say, pajamas might be? Ideally journalists would play devil`s advocate and ask us questions that critically explore our assumptions, but being associated with a cause such as street sexual harassment has led to an assumption that any work to counter is must be good, therefore the project is always painted in a single, generally positive, hue.

The second fallout of the wide media coverage has been the exact opposite of the positive journalist - it`s the reporter who has read the good reviews and now fiercely feels the need to adopt a contrary view. Whatever the cost. Recently a journalist came to the Delhi night walk and reported that the BNP organised a ?protest against `touching, staring, groping, pinching and stalking`?, but volunteers ?in their spaghetti tops and accented English? were apparently ?`leched` at, ridiculed and booed?, and ?those who hadn`t turned up in a `mod and hep` attire seemed clearly overdressed?. (http://in.news.yahoo.com/060918/43/67ojo.html). Annie Zaidi of Frontline magazine was at the same walk, and she points out that BNP never claimed to be ?protesting? street harassment, was never booed or ridiculed along the walk, asserts that not everyone was in spaghetti tops, no one spoke accented English and asks finally, ?The reporter has placed `mod and hep` in inverted commas. Any particular reason? Was this supposed to be a reference to western clothes? Also, those who were not in western clothes were in regulation cotton shalwars... Overdressed? Who??

The reporter`s piece was wire copy unfortunately, so it got multiplied across media. Which brings us to the monster unleashed by the competition between Hydra-headed media outfits. Each major news group, comprising a TV channel and footprints in print, is certain to cover any ?event with a difference? in all its avatars. Except that there seems to be little or no coherence or system in place between the many arms of the same company. So, for instance Times Now`s reporter covered the story sticking to facts but the print arms of the Times group (including the Mumbai Mirror) pasted copy off the same erratic wire copy to tell a different story from what their own reporter had observed. Multiple understandings of the same event might be explained by the fact that each product caters to its niche market and thus may tell it differently - but this kind of wild disparity reflects an industry that has grown minus checks and balances and a sense of unity between its disparate arms.

Apart from misreporting on particular instances, recently the Blank Noise website (http://blanknoiseproject.blogspot.com/2006/10/good-press-is-good-press-bad-press-is.html ) has felt compelled to post about wider press distortion as well. Any activism to do with the youth has got caught up in the sweep of the post-Rang de Basanti hysteria - Blank Noise was begun in 2003 and RDB released in 2006, but journalists such as these ones writing for DNA are eager to pinpoint general ?trends? and imply that Blank Noise is a part of the enthusiasm that has - apparently - been generated after the film. (http://www.dnaindia.com/report.asp?NewsID=1022996)

Mass media imposes restrictions on both research time and story length, perhaps explaining why reporters often seem ill equipped to handle nuance or depth. This is a familiar rant against mainstream media, yet with Blank Noise being conceived as a space to explore issues such as public art, gender power relations, public space and performance, we have come to see journalists unable to adopt new vocabularies outside the old and familiar. Jasmeen points out on the blog that we`re not into huge numbers at Blank Noise. We don`t ever have hundreds of people show up at an event. But of the tens who do, we like to think that we`re all taking back something in terms of an experience. And so it`s important to us that the media is on the same page. When we announce a Night Action Plan, what we`re suggesting is considerably different from what the media generalises (because that`s what they`re familiar with?) as a ?night march?. A march accompanies a clearcut goal, a defined, sought-after end result. A Night Action Plan which sets out to experience the markets of Delhi in the nighttime without a male escort. is finding its own language and dynamic, taking shape as it goes along with much spontaneity. It`s not about noodle strap tops or dressing chic. (http://www.telegraphindia.com/1061022/asp/calcutta/story_6898904.asp) 

The attitude that reporters from the mass media often arrive with is perhaps best summed up in an interview where we were talking about how Blank Noise evolved as a public art project into a more wide ranging project that took its shape from the interests and backgrounds of its different members. We were talking about graffiti, public interventions that explored spaces and how this could constitute public art. ?But what is public art,? the journalist persisted, somewhat hopelessly. ?Is it photography or painting?? This is exactly what Blank Noise is trying to move away from. The narrowly defined and familiar. This or That. Blank Noise does not operate from the sense of urgency that compels direct policy change. Instead it is focussing on debate and discourse  where what we say is as important as how we say it.

Will the mainstream media allow us our variation though? Will it encompass in its reports on us some of the breadth we are striving toward? Or will we be the ?mod and hep girls? who got leched at (when we didn`t), went on a march (when we didn`t), held placards (when we didn`t) and protested (when we didn`t). It`s just the vocabulary, you might point out. But at Blank Noise that`s exactly what we`re striving to question. On our blog we say we`re ?probing, delving, experiencing, empowering and translating?. And so the message and its language, is everything.

Feedback:  blurtblanknoise@gmail.com

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